Portrait of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute in an article commenting on her corset research and practice (among other things), 1890s.
Before I proceed, I am going to ask that you read this post with the following disclaimer in mind:
I do not fluently read/speak French. Therefore the translations provided below are courtesy of Google Translate, which is not perfect. I tried to verify the translations through multiple dictionaries to ensure that I am not misinterpreting the author’s intent, but sometimes things can be lost in translation which is why I have provided the original French alongside the Google English translations.
Wikimedia’s photograph archive from the book “Le Corset” written by Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute c. 1900 showcases a wide variety of body shapes in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period. The book has illustrations (photographs overtraced by hand) of women of many body types modelling the “old” corset style from the 19th century and the “new” corset style we call the S-bend or flat front corset, which was supposed to prevent lower tummy expansion and be healthier than the older style.
As you go through the photos, notice all the women the have lower belly paunch that comes from age, childbirth, medical conditions, weight gain, gravity, and from wearing corsets which push belly fat and organs downwards– effects which Gaches-Sarraute wished to correct with her new corset design.
This revolutionary and controversial book is one of the most famous pieces of corset literature from the early 20th century.
(The other, also titled “Le Corset” but by a different author, contains the infamous corset x-rays)
You may already be familiar with some of the images from the book, if not the book itself:
Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute vehemently opposed the Victorian corset because of the health problems she observed–like hernias, constricted ribcages, displaced organs, and weakened muscles–in the women wearing them. At first glance, the book may seem decidedly anti-corset and has lent much to the modern hatred/fear of the garment. However, the author herself states that she is not anti-corset:
“I could not think propose the abolition of the corset, we have seen elsewhere that has its uses; it is towards the elimination of its main drawbacks I directed my efforts.“
Original French: “Je ne pouvais songer à proposer la suppression du corset, nous avons vu d’ailleurs qu’il a son utilité; c’est vers la suppression de ses principaux inconvénients que j’ai dirigé mes efforts.”
In fact, she is pro-corset, but only if the garment was made to more healthful standards. Her goal was quite a noble one: to improve the overall health of women by changing what she saw as the root cause of many female health problems— bad corsets.
Thus she designed a new support of her own:
Fig. 7 – Corset Gaches-Sarraute
It is very similar to the girdles that we see later in the century and still wear. In many advertisements, the short, light-reduction version of the S-bend corsets closest to Gaches-Sarraute’s original design are called “girdle corsets.”
It was meant to support the organs from below, free the chest from compression, and encourage “proper” posture. She believed her new corset design not only helped women’s organs, but improved their beauty and mental health. This design became the basis for the S-bend or straight front corset that took the fashion world by storm during the first decade of the 20th century.
“With an abdominal corset that supports and relaxes her, the woman has less drawn features, eyes less circled, she is more vivacious, more energetic…Many women, sick without the cause of their condition being well determined, condemned to an almost constant repose, are now vigorous, healthy, able to walk, and without exaggerating, are reborn to life. Did the simple change of corset produce such results? Yes, because to this day all corsets, constructed without rules or laws, acted in the opposite direction to natural indications, and thwarted all physiological functions.”
Original French: “Avec un corset abdominal qui la soutient et la repose, la femme a les traits moins tirés, les yeux moins cernés, elle est plus vivace, plus énergique…Bien des femmes, malades sans que la cause de leur état fût bien déterminée, condamnées à un repos presque constant, sont aujourd’hui vigoureuses, bien portantes, peuvent marcher et sans rien exagérer renaissent à la vie.Le simple changement de corset a-t-il pu donner de tels résultats? Oui, parce que jusqu’aujourd’hui tous les corsets, construits sans règles, ni lois, agissaient en sens inverse des indications naturelles et contrariaient toutes les fonctions physiologiques.”
As we know now, the S-bend was not the cure-all Gaches-Sarraute hoped for. It came with its own set of problems.
Though the distended lower stomach caused by the older style of corset was considered unsightly and unhealthy, it had the advantage of allowing viscera some means of expansion. The S-bend/straight front corset did indeed keep the organs from being distended downward, but instead, it pressed them up, much as pregnancy does. The long, rigid front of the S-bend corset could become very uncomfortable since pressure from meals, gas, urine, menstral/hormonal changes, etc. has nowhere to expand except up against the diaphragm. This was not directly the fault of Gaches-Sarraute’s medically-minded design, but the effect was exacerbated by fashion adaptations made by mass manufacturers (as is so often the case, isn’t it?). Many straight front corsets made for the mass market extended too high on the body to allow for expansion of the ribs and upwards movement of the organs.
W. H. K. & S. “Ascot” Straight Fronted Corset Ad, 1902
Notice how much higher it extends compared to Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute design.
Modern corsets suffer from similar problems as we value the straight front, but crave full coverage to avoid unsightly bulges. This hybridization contributes in large part to the corset’s uncomfortable reputation as mass-manufacturers focus on overall slimness rather than the comfort of their wares. Without room left at the top and bottom of the corset to allow for the expansion and movement of flesh, tubular fashion corsets press too much everywhere, leading to chafing, numbness, breathlessness, and constriction. Coupled with general ignorance of how corsets should fit and be worn, it’s no surprise that the garment has gained such a painful reputation.
Inès Gaches-Sarraute and corset-lovers everywhere are cringing so hard right now.
The size/looks-before-comfort method of corset wearing has always been a problem.
Yes, even Victorian and Edwardian women wore ill-fitting or improperly worn corsets, often purchased “off the rack” in shops or through catalogs. It’s a common myth that everything was perfectly tailor-made to fit by the women themselves. By the mid-19th century, corsets were manufactured in large factories and purchased much as we purchase a pair of jeans today.
Victorian women were number-conscious just like us, too!
“Women have heard from their friends about a corset that looks good, which makes a pretty size [waist] – that is the only fact that interests them: they want to wear it, hoping to benefit also from an aesthetic point of view; But as their physiological state and conformation differ, if the corset is applied under the same conditions it produces the contrary effect and hurts them.“
Original French: “Elles ont entendu parler par leurs amies d’un corset dont on se trouve bien, qui fait une jolie taille — c’est le seul fait qui les intéresse: elles veulent le porter, espérant en bénéficier, elles aussi, au point de vue esthétique; mais comme leur état physiologique et leur conformation diffèrent, si le corset est appliqué dans les mêmes conditions il produit l’effet contraire et leur fait mal.”
On this point, Gaches-Sarraute and modern corsetiers absolutely agree: do not sacrifice fit for looks! Fortunately for modern corset makers, the corset’s recent rise in popularity has increased awareness of proper fit. Gaches-Sarraute’s principles play heavily into modern corset design, like reduction points closer to the hips, cupped ribs to allow room for comfortable breathing, and embracing the underbust cut for ease of movement.
Gaches-Sarraute’s underbust design was revolutionary. For the first time in over 300+ years of corset evolution, the female breast was not held within the corset. This was a big change. The low front leaves the bust unsupported and pulls weight from the abdomen upwards, creating a top-heavy apple shape with natural-state breasts, which didn’t suit the Victorian feminine ideal of defined hourglass curves. Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute saw this as an bothersome, but positive side effect:
“There is therefore a reform to bring to the costume, tedious reform, but which is necessary. The woman who wishes to wear the abdominal corset must not allow herself to be stopped by this modification; She must not hesitate to subject her clothes to the radical transformations required by the apparatus.“
Original French: “…il y a donc une réforme à apporter au costume, réforme ennuyeuse, mais qui s’impose. La femme qui veut porter le corset abdominal ne doit point se laisser arrêter par cette modification; il ne faut pas qu’elle hésite à faire subir à ses vêtements les transformations radicales exigées par l’appareil.”
Fashions did change, but not quite as Gaches-Sarraute might have hoped. To adapt to the new corset shape, the dresses of the early 1900s are different than any feminine fashion before them: the waist moves low to the pelvis, bodices hang full and loose, and women in fashion illustrations appear to be rushing forward so fast they are leaving their skirts behind them.
Fashion Plate, 1903
Fashion Plate, 1904
Les Modes, 1904
Because the new style of corset moved the point of reduction to the soft abdomen rather than over the floating ribs, women discovered they could achieve greater reductions than before, an effect Gaches-Sarraute obviously was not aiming to achieve originally. She notes with some amused befuddlement in her book:
“Before ending the long enumeration of the modifications made by the Abdominal Corset , I must point out a curious phenomenon, which is difficult to explain; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.“
Original French: “Avant de terminer l’énumération déjà bien longue des modifications apportées par le corsetabdominal, il me faut signaler un phénomène assez curieux, assez difficile à expliquer; I mean the general thinning of the woman and the slimming of the whole area covered by the apparatus.“
We would call this effect “waist training” in our modern vernacular. Gaches-Sarraute noticed that the shape and weight of her patients changed after they had worn the corset regularly. From her Observations section later in the book:
“Madame. H, 48 years old. Obesity, heart palpitations, very bad condition, does not leave the couch, varicose veins. First corset, October 1898. Since then, a lot thinner: 40 cm of belly circumference [15.75 inches], Since then, has thinned a lot: 40 centimeters belly, circulatory disorders have decreased and general health is much better, the patient walks very well”
Original French: “Mme H…, 48 ans. Obésité, palpitations de cœur, état général très mauvais, ne quitte pas la chaise longue, varices des membres inférieurs. 1er Corset, octobre 1898. Depuis lors, a beaucoup aminci : 40 centimètres de tour de ventre, les troubles circulatoires ont diminué et la santé générale est beaucoup meilleure, la malade marche très bien.”
It probably wasn’t just the cinching power responsible for Mme. H’s transformation. She might have been able to move around more due to the lower back support provided by her new corset, boosting her impressive weight loss results with increased physical activity.
Back support has long been one of the main functions of corsets and corset-like garments. To provide the back support which Gaches-Sarraute believed Victorian corsets lacked, her corset design was very sharply angled at the lower back. This created artificial lumbar hyperlordosis, commonly called swayback. Some people develop this naturally, but by modern medical standards, it is considered a form of bad posture because it places stress on the lower disks, hip joints, knees, and, with the added pressure from the corset, the kidneys. However, this sort of posture was considered both powerful and graceful– and quite masculine. It was the posture of well-pedigreed gentlemen and soldiers standing at attention with their chests puffed out in confidence.
Dr. Gaches-Sarraute’s design gave women this same posture, and straight-front corsets were often advertised as “military front” for that reason:
Foster Hose Supporter Ad from 1901
Corset advertisement, circa 1901-1905
This hyper-extended ideal posture was adopted by models, fashionistas, socialites, and famous personalities like Camille Clifford and Edith Lambelle Langerfeld:
Camille Clifford is famous for the curvy figure and is known to many as the original Gibson Girl. She embodied the epitome of the new S-bend look: flat abdomen, swelling bust, and prominent derriere. Her extraordinary photos must be taken with a grain of salt: she is also one of the greatest examples of early photo retouching. The retouching is evident here by the unnatural smoothness of everything from her hips up where the wrinkles of fabric suddenly vanish.
Edith Langerfeild “La Sylphe” was an exotic dancer known her extreme flexibility and extreme forward-arching posture, though not for wearing corsets (she regularly danced semi-nude). She combined the fashionable swayback posture and her contortionist skills to create an exaggerated version of the look sans-corset. Her career– and signature style–extended the forward-leaning trend into the 1910s, though the waistline moved up from the hips to the just under the bust.
Outside fashion photographs and illustrations, the average woman did not usually adopt the exaggerated posture–as this informative article, “The S-bend in Context” by Marion McNealy, shows– and some created the illusion of the shape with padding rather than posture.
Women walking, circa 1902-1905
Edwardian women in day dresses going about their daily lives for comparison to the fashion images above.
Photograph of a working class woman walking, circa 1905-1908
A great example of how the underbust design affects the fit of the bodice over the bust compared to a Victorian corset.
Padding options from the 1905 Sears Catalogue
They are still called bustles, though they are quite a bit smaller than those of the 1880s!
The S-bend posture ideal had lasting effects. In 1932, Elizabeth Arden released a newsreel urging women to abandon the now “old” swayback style of posture Gaches-Sarraute’s straight front corset encouraged:
Elizabeth Arden advises women to adopt the modern straight posture we still strive for today. This posture ideal has much to do with our focus on unisex athleticism and greatly slimmed-down fashions (athleisure, anyone?). It’s quite impossible to hide the edge of a rigid corset under a pair of yoga pants! Many women wear only one or two layers which hug the body and is often cut to reveal skin and structure. We no longer deal with the bulky layers and heavy skirts our female ancestors considered fashionable, which leads to another of Gaches-Sarraute’s reasons for not throwing out the notion of corsets entirely:
“The main role of the corset should be to support the clothes and prevent constriction of ties around the waist, so as to prevent overflow of the viscera downward under the influence of this constriction.“
Original French: “Le rôle principal du corset doit être de soutenir les vêtements et d’empêcher la constriction des liens autour de la taille, de façon à éviter le refoulement des viscères vers le bas sous l’influence de cette constriction.”
This same sentiment is shared by Robert L. Dickinson who wrote “The Corset: Questions of Pressure and Displacement” for The New York Medical Journal in 1887:
“In the woman who wears no corsets, the many layers of bands about the waist on which heavy skirts drag are sufficient to cause considerable constriction”
Just like the fashions of the Victorian era, the fashions of 1900 were all about layers that relied on a tight fit at the waist. Women sought to make these layers as lightweight and full as possible to avoid bulk, but there was still many hidden supports under those beautiful outer skirts:
I covered more about historical clothing layers in earlier posts: “With and Without: How Wearing a Corset Affects You and Your Clothes” and “Lifting Skirts and Loosening Ties: What goes under an Edwardian Dress?“
A corset takes and distributes the weight of the skirts, supporting all the layers so they do not dig into the skin– the very definition of a “foundation garment!”
Gaches-Sarraute’s low-cut corset lead to the creation of a new foundation garment: the brassiere, though not quite as we know it now. Gaches-Sarraute was emphatically against altering her corset design to provide breast support, devoting an entire chapter in her book to her argument against it. She believed that the new design provided enough support to the breasts by means of the expanded, upraised ribcage it created and that:
“Trapping the breasts in an impermeable fabric promotes wilting and atrophy of the gland.“
Original French: “Le fait d’emprisonner les seins dans un tissu imperméable favorise le flétrissement et l’atrophie de la glande.”
Gaches-Sarraute’s entire mission was to spare as many organs as possible from pressure, including the mammary glands. She even describes a problem many modern women who have worn an underbust corset with a modern bra have experienced: the dreaded pinch that happens to the flesh trapped between the corset and bra band. Modern tastes and social mores press Western women today to wear bras, especially in conservative American culture: modern American women are expected to have high, round breasts that do not show nipples– a goal that mandates daily bra wearing under our relatively thin, sheer clothing. Edwardian women, in contrast, wore multiple layers of cloth over their breasts, so show-through wasn’t as much of a worry. Their concern with the lack of breast support was out of habit (used to old corsets) and practical (the need for support while working/exercising) which is why some women found the underbust unsatisfactory. This meant that underbust corsets didn’t take over the world in a blink. Instead, Victorian styles and high, demi-bust versions of S-bend corsets were sold right along side the shorter style, much, I am sure, to Gaches-Sarraute’s chagrin:
Corsets Department page from the 1905 Sears Catalogue. Left side shows older Victorian style corsets while the right side corsets are S-bend straight front corsets.
As any large-breasted woman–myself included– can attest, unsupported breasts have many painful complications of their own. Once they are past a certain size and age, they no longer are self-supporting, creating both comfort, health, and aesthetic issues. She brushes these notions aside, saying, “there are few women with breasts sufficiently large for it to be necessary to provide them with a support/il y a peu de femmes pourvues de seins assez volumineux pour qu’il soit indispensable de leur fournir un appui.” However, she begrudgingly acknowledges the criticism of her design and offers a solution. One of the most famous images from the book shows her brassiere design of choice:
She was far ahead of her time when it came to the design: fifty years later, women would be wearing a very similar look:
Formfit Ad, 1949
Spencer Ad, 1959
Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s corset design, whatever our personal opinions of it, undeniably revolutionized fashion even though the woman herself cared very little for any of the outside frills and fashion. She was concerned only with the internal workings of women, not that of their needles and thread. From her earliest design trials in the late 1890s (her first recorded recorded observation is dated 1895), she recorded the health improvements she saw in her patients after wearing her new corset design, claiming to have observed nearly 4,000 cases of successful recoveries ranging from healing incontinence to treating infertility.
When studying old texts like “Le Corset,” it is important to remember that medical practices and knowledge 120 years ago were very different than today. We cannot verify all of Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute’s claims. Her writing must be viewed with some skepticism, as she is writing to promote both her work and designs as well as writing with the limitations of Victorian medical knowledge. As even she states, it was hard to find enough uncorseted women to form a control group, making it difficult to tell which medical conditions were caused by corsets, exacerbated by them, relieved by them, or completely unrelated. For example, many 21st century women have rounded, low bellies like those pictured in “Le Corset” even though they have never worn a corset in their life– it’s just how some bodies store fat and where loose skin forms after childbirth.
One thing that is clear, however, is Gaches-Sarraute’s steadfast devotion to the healing and liberation of women’s bodies. She was determined to improve and advance women’s lives via her new corset design:
“Woman has glimpsed the possibility of altering her way of life; she wants to take part in the work and physical exercise of men; On the other hand, she is incommoded by the present dress, she is ill, and, consequently, ready to accept its modifications. I appreciate this happy disposition, convinced that nothing can be done for women except with their own consent, and I shall be happy if my work, based on scientific and physiological data, is appreciated by the medical profession and by hygienists. It will be much easier for me to fight against fashion and prejudice, which take no account of the needs of our organism.“
Original French: “La femme a entrevu la possibilité de modifier son genre de vie, elle veut prendre part aux travaux et aux exercices physiques des hommes; d’autre part, elle est incommodée par le vêtement actuel, elle est malade, et, par suite, prête à en accepter les modifications. Je saisis cette heureuse disposition, convaincue qu’on ne peut rien faire pour les femmes qu’avec leur propre assentiment, et je serai heureuse si mon travail, basé sur des données scientifiques et physiologiques, est apprécié du corps médical et des hygiénistes, car il me sera alors beaucoup plus aisé de lutter contre la mode et les préjugés qui ne tiennent aucun compte des besoins de notre organisme.”
Dr. Inès Gaches-Sarraute, as a female doctor, saw her unique opportunity to influence female freedom. As a medical doctor, she had the knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and biology that seamstresses, fashion designers, and corset manufacturers at the time lacked. As a woman, she personally understood feminine needs and sensibilities in a way that her male medical colleagues could not. In addition to designing a new corset, she advocated for sensible dress, championed bicycle riding, and was even willing to let women wear pants if they agreed to stop wearing old-fashioned corsets.
Bicycling in lounge pants and and old-fashioned corset. Whoopsie! Sorry, Dr. Inès!
Her legacy continues today in the form of medical corsets/braces (which help thousands find relief from back pain/scoliosis, postnatal complications, hernias, and more), modern corsetry design principles, and, for better or worse, our cantankerous relationship with one of the most controversial garments ever made.
The full text of “Le Corset” is available in the original French on Wikimedia.
It is available in multiple formats, including a wonderful scanned PDF version.
When it comes to corsets–and clothes in general–everyone has different needs. Corsets are certainly not one-size-fits-all, and they aren’t all one-style-fits-all either! Some find the underbust S-bend corset suits their body and is just as pleasant to wear as Gaches-Sarraute hoped it would be. Other people find the flowing curves and high front of the Victorian corset more comfortable and supportive. Many more still have no want for any corset at all, and that is perfectly fine, too.
As for my tastes: Remember those too-tall S-Bends from earlier? Yeah, those work great for me if patterned right! I like the flexible demi-bust front of a Victorian corset for support, but the curve of my back and titled pelvis work best with the back and hips of the S-bend, so long as there is plenty of extra room in the ribs and hips for all my luscious lipids to move around in!
This sort of knowledge is not inherent or concrete. It is something you learn over time with experience. Remember: a corset is just a garment. It is the person filling it with that matters most!